OCEAN CITY — County officials are working to place armed security in four county buildings.
In a Thursday, April 21 state of the county speech to Cape May County Chamber of Commerce members at the Port-O-Call Hotel in Ocean City, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county wants to heighten its security in light of “today’s environment.”
“We’re in the process right now of looking and costing it out for armed security,” Thornton said by phone Thursday afternoon.
He said the county wants armed guards in its Social Services Office in Rio Grande, the Administration Building and the Health Department office on Moore Road in Crest Haven, and the Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. There are unarmed guards at the facilities now.
The courts, which are guarded by officers with the Sheriff's Office, are the only county buildings with armed security, Thornton said.
“We’re concerned about the security in our county for our employees,” he said.
Thornton, who was a guest speaker in the county chamber’s monthly meeting Thursday, briefly touched on the plan when addressing the dozens of business leaders inside the Port-O-Call’s Adelene Restaurant, just off the Ocean City Boardwalk at 15th Street.
He said he couldn’t elaborate much on county security and ongoing discussions to tighten it. But Thornton did say that the county Office of Emergency Management, headed by Martin Pagliughi, was recently put in charge of county building security.
The move coincides with an ongoing effort to launch a countywide dispatch service that would operate out of the Lower Township Public Safety Building at the Cape May Airport. The county is renovating the building for $6.2 million as part of an agreement in which Lower Township agreed to pay about $2 million for its portion of the building in exchange for turning over the facility to the county. The township agreed to lease about 46 percent of the building for up to 50 years.
Steven Long, a former Wildwood police chief, was hired to oversee the county's new security and dispatch programs under OEM, Pagliughi said.
Pagliughi said Friday that the county is looking to hire a rotating staff of 12 armed guards on a permanent part-time basis to cover the four buildings. Officials are still deciding whether to outsource the job or hire their own security, and that decision would depend on which is most cost-effective, he said.
Crest Haven is the only facility out of the four with around-the-clock security.
Pagliughi, who is also Avalon's mayor, said the county Board of Freeholders chose to pursue armed security for the four buildings in light of recent attacks in schools and against public employees.
"It's unfortunate, but that's the times we live in now," he said.
In his speech at the Port-O-Call, Thornton said a December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. particularly hit home.
In that incident, a married couple entered a banquet room hosting a Christmas party for county public health workers and opened fire. One of the 14 killed, Nicholas Thalasinos, had been a Cape May County public health investigator for more than a decade before he left the area for a job in California.
“I knew him personally,” Thornton said after the meeting. “All the sudden I see the news about that tragedy out there and there’s somebody we knew. That really brought it home. If it could happen in San Bernardino, it can happen anywhere.”
Thornton’s wide-ranging message to county business leaders was mostly upbeat.
He lauded the county’s $6.3 billion in tourism revenues in 2016, which he called “absolutely amazing” for a county of 96,000 year-round residents.
Thornton also said “little Cape May County” generates $2.1 million in rental income, $9.8 million in occupancy tax and $547 million in sales tax.
“When I see these figures it’s amazing,” he told the chamber. “Absolutely amazing.”
Thornton touted the county as an up-and-coming moneymaker with its recent increase in breweries, wineries and distilleries, and he said Cape May oysters have also been in high demand.
He also pointed out the county’s recent involvement in the drone business.
In December, tech startup Luftronix Inc. announced it planned to open a test and demonstration center for drones at Cape May Airport.
The county airport is also a Federal Aviation Administration test site for unmanned aerial vehicles, and county officials announced last month that it planned to lease a 1,500-square-foot “incubator space” in a new building at the Airport Industrial Park for small drone companies.
“I will give [Freeholder] Will Morey credit,” Thornton said. “He was the one … who recognized the fact that drones were the future. The environment at Cape May County and at the airport is very conducive to not only manufacturing the drones but also testing them.”